By John Schaffner
The city of Atlanta’s Department of Planning and Community Development and its Department of Watershed Management say they have greatly streamlined the processes for obtaining permits so businesses can get running with little hassle. But lots of businesses say it isn’t so.
It took veterinarian Duffey Jones two years of expensive delays to open his Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in the rear of an apartment building at 2909 Peachtree Road N.E. He is in the fourth year of a five-year lease but has been open only two years because of the delays, most of them in the permitting office.
Chef Linton Hopkins, who opened Restaurant Eugene in 2004, experienced similar delays this year when he went to open Holeman & Finch Public House and H&F Bread Co. in the same Aramore condominium building as Restaurant Eugene, at 2255 to 2277 Peachtree Road N.E.
“The biggest delays were with Holeman & Finch. The building permit took probably a month and a half to two months longer than it should have,” Hopkins said.
But the worst delay concerned the grease trap permit through the Department of Watershed Management. “It took almost four months,” Hopkins said, “which is ridiculous for a 1,500-square-foot place. Three to four months’ delay at Holeman & Finch is lost revenue of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
He said the delays caused by the city and state for the new bakery lasted a month to a month and a half. “With the bake shop, we did not have fryers and were not doing grease cooking. The big delays with Watershed Management involve grease cooking and grease traps.”
Robert and January Hodgson ran into the same problems the past four months with the Bureau of Buildings and the Department of Watershed Management. They were moving their Savor Specialty Foods store from Roswell Road near Irby Street to the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center.
Savor was taking a space formerly occupied by the Bear Rock Cafe on June 1 so the couple started making phone calls to city agencies in May, thinking it should be a simple process.
“This was a fully licensed and fully operational space as a restaurant,” said Robert Hodgson, who goes by Ren. “We were taking half of the seating away and half of the kitchen equipment away. The only changes we were doing were cosmetic — no wiring, no plumbing, nothing like that.”
But the simple process turned into a four-month nightmare for the Hodgsons, like the experiences of Hopkins, Jones and scores of other entrepreneurs trying to open shop in Atlanta. They lost revenue and piled up expenses because of city permitting processes that are anything but streamlined.
Delays plague animal hospital
“The two years of delays and the money I spent was just unbelievable,” Jones, 35, said of starting up in a basement space in Buckhead.
Though the practice is in a commercial C-3 zone, Jones said the Bureau of Buildings “couldn’t figure out what we were trying to do. I did rainwater runoff surveys, traffic surveys. I did all this stuff that I never ended up needing, and I spent all of this money. It seemed like everyone I talked to gave me something else I needed.”
Once he got the permits, it took only four months to build out the space and open.
“Had I known what it was going to take in the city of Atlanta, I think I definitely would’ve reconsidered,” said Jones, who named the business when he planned to locate in Peachtree Hills. He and his wife grew up in Garden Hills and live in Peachtree Hills, so he wanted the business in Buckhead.
“Being a small-business owner, we’re the people that drive the economy,” Jones said. “You’d think they would make it easier for the small businesses to open. If you’re a big corporation, it seems like you can get anything done. But for us who don’t really know the system, it’s nearly impossible to get stuff done.”
He figured it would be an easy process. Instead, he spent almost every day at the city government, trying to get the plans approved. “They had lost my plans multiple times. You name it, it happened. I have bad city luck.”
After his $400,000 investment in equipment and the build-out of the space, the long wait, and finally two years of business success, Jones fears he will have to move his animal hospital and start the process all over again. His building is scheduled to be razed for a new Crowne Plaza Hotel, maybe starting this fall.
Taking risks isn’t rewarded
“Because of years of mismanagement of our water resources and the way we drain water and handle grease in the kitchen, we now have created a federally mandated code for grease traps,” Hopkins said. “It says that I as a small restaurant with one small fryer am required to have the same grease trap as a place that maybe has five fryers. That is a $30,000 cost.”
Restaurant Eugene had a grease trap that met the code when it opened but was out of code when he went to build Holeman & Finch four years later. So he had to have a plumber take pictures of it and make “a small, really insignificant change” to the flow and capture of grease, Hopkins said. “That was a huge burden in cost and time. It really slowed us down in the construction and opening of Holeman & Finch.”
The request for the grease trap permit got lost on a shelf in the Department of Watershed Management, he said. “The name was supposedly in the wrong place, so they just had it sitting on a shelf until someone called about it.”
It was not his first unhappy experience with Watershed Management. Because of bad water pipes, the city closed Peachtree Road in front of Restaurant Eugene for three months on the first anniversary of that business. “If I didn’t have the reserves and help of my landlord, I would be out of business,” Hopkins said. Because it was a city utility issue, he could not collect on his insurance. “The answer from the city was nothing.”
With H&F Bread, he found himself under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees bakeries and butcher shops. “They have their own applications. You call them, and four days later someone shows up.”
The state inspector found one violation: A 3-inch-high rubber strip barrier needed to be added between the floor and the wall. Hopkins had it installed, and the wait began. “That amounted to two weeks of delay.”
He said the process leaves the impression that a lot of businesses are opening and a lot of inspections have to be made. “But I don’t know how many bakeries are currently opening in Atlanta or in the state of Georgia at the same time that we are.”
Liquor licenses are another problem he cites. Hopkins serves full spirits in his small restaurant bar and said he pays “the same fees that a giant bar pays for selling the same thing that may have bar sales of $5 million a year.”
He had to get a separate liquor license for Holeman & Finch “because it is not the same doorway.”
He said: “There are a lot of these burdens on these small guys. My whole issue with all of this is that I want to have some kind of break or some kind of incentive for sticking my neck out financially by creating these businesses. Please help us open small businesses. There has to be a system in place with our government to help us with taxation and to be there for us to speed our openings.”
Hopkins said the bakery delays forced him to borrow from Restaurant Eugene, which has a different ownership group than his new businesses. “So there is a burden on Restaurant Eugene for me to open these other two places because of delays — most of them for building permits for Holeman & Finch.”
Grease is just one permit trap
The Bureau of Buildings’ confusion and loss of plans and the Department of Watershed Management’s issues with grease trap permits played major roles in Savor’s four-month delay in opening in its new location. The business had to shut down for three weeks and ran up thousands of dollars in unexpected costs.
“I was trying to figure out what to do about the grease trap long before we moved out of the other store,” Ren Hodgson said. “I asked the guy who inspected our grease trap what we needed to do. He said to call the people over grease traps and tell them that you are moving and they likely will transfer your grease trap license from the old location to the new one if you are not changing the operation of the business. I thought that sounded easy enough and didn’t think much more about it.”
The couple went online and found a page on the grease trap office at City Hall East. It said people can walk in without an appointment between 7 and 9 a.m. and have their plans reviewed, and it said the turnaround is 24 hours if you leave a phone number.
The city Web site was out of date. The office had moved from City Hall East to 263 Decatur St., and when Hodgson went to the new office, he was told he now had to have an appointment and could make that appointment only by e-mail.
The Bureau of Buildings told Hodgson he would have to retain an architect because it seemed to bureau staffers that he was changing the space from a restaurant point of assemblage to a mercantile point of assemblage. He retained an architect, and $5,000 and three weeks later he had architectural drawings showing changes to the old Bear Rock Cafe drawings.
The day the Bureau of Buildings started an online permit tracking system, the couple checked it out, he said. “On June 30, it finally showed that our plans showed up for review — that they were assigned.”
It had taken 17 days to get the plans assigned. One field that showed up was plan review; another was zoning. “The whole shopping center is zoned C-3,” Hodgson said. “Zoning review should take all of about 30 to 60 seconds and then another 30 to 60 seconds to sign off on whatever they need to sign off on. They said that will take three more weeks.”
Around July 1, the Hodgsons were told they needed to find out whether they fell under the jurisdiction of the Fulton County Health Department or the state Agriculture Department. No one knew for sure, but they were sent to the state agency. “With the kitchen and all of the retail stock, they did not know what to do with Savor,” he said. “Is it a grocery store, which falls under Agriculture, or is it a restaurant, which falls under the Health Department?”
On July 10 they found that their permit entry had disappeared from the tracking site. There was no record of its being logged in, although it later was discovered that Savor was logged in at the Bank of America space, not the Bear Creek Cafe.
The Savor owners were deeply involved — almost daily — with the Bureau of Buildings until mid-July, when their biggest efforts shifted to Watershed Management. Hitting another stone wall, Hodgson told an agency official he would have to lay off employees. The reply: “That’s your problem.”
That’s when the Hodgsons brought in an attorney.
“It is very frustrating, and I don’t believe it has to be this complicated,” Ren Hodgson said. “You are talking about people’s livelihoods. We are talking about money going out the door because our places are closed.”
Savor finallly got its new certificate of occupancy on Aug. 7.
Next edition: What does the leadership of the city have to say about the treatment of small businesses?